By Jeremy Hritz
The 2014 NFL Draft is still 110 days away, yet the excitement of Steelers fans is at intense levels as they are optimistic about the prospects of a successful new season and of new draft picks propelling the team towards not just a playoff berth, but a realistic chance of contending for another Super Bowl.
While it is entirely too early to begin mock drafting without having watched a reasonable amount of game film, it is not too early to identify the positions the Steelers will draft come May. Based on the performances of the existing players on the 2013 roster, the expected development of younger players, and on the likelihood of new rookies contributing, below is my perspective of the key positions that the Steelers will address in this year’s draft. While the order that I am listing these positions does not necessarily reflect the order that the Steelers will draft this May, it does indicate the importance/need of the position for the team to ensure continued improvement in the upcoming season.
1. Cornerback – While I wouldn’t have predicted this as being a position of need at the beginning of this past season, Cortez Allen did not perform up to high expectations, Ike Taylor began to decline, and the early pick on Curtis Brown proved to be a waste. While Allen still has time to develop into a quality starter, Taylor has seen better days, and it seems more likely that William Gay would better serve the defense as the starter (I never thought I would write that. Ever). Regardless, the Steelers need a boost at the cornerback position, and while there wouldn’t be any pressure on the pick to step into the starting lineup in his first season, he could find his way into sub-packages. Justin Gilbert is the highest-ranked cornerback out of Oklahoma State on most mock draft boards, but he will more than likely be off of the board when the Steelers select at 15, and Darqueze Denard from Michigan State is smallish and lacks durability and would not be worth the 15th overall pick. Unless a darkhorse lights it up at the combine, it might be a safe bet that the Steelers wait until rounds two or three before taking a cornerback.
2. Wide Receiver – The Steelers have a solid receiving corps right now, with the exception of the unproven of Markus Wheaton. Antonio Brown is shifty and can be explosive, and he has proven himself to be an elite wide out, whereas Jerricho Cotchery is sure-handed and reliable (I am assuming he will be re-signed). The missing piece in this unit is a big-bodied receiver that not only can bring in the deep ball, but also make the tough catch in the red zone by out-leaping defenders. While taking a tall and strong receiver may be a bit indulgent as the Steelers have several other needs, it may be the missing piece of the puzzle that could take the Steelers from being a good offense to a great one. A large target in the form Kelvin Benjamin or Mike Evans could create mismatches with opposing defenses that would not only benefit the passing game, but would also force defenses to not over-commit to the run, opening lanes up for Le’Veon Bell. While I’m not sold on the Steelers drafting a wide receiver at fifteen, if one of these big name giants is available, they will be difficult to pass up.
3. Safety - The Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round last year, and he could assume a starting role with the imminent departure of Ryan Clark. However, there is not any guarantee that Troy Polamalu will be back next season because of uncertainty surrounding whether or not his cap charge can be lowered via an extension or a pay cut. The best case scenario for 2014 is that Polamalu returns at a discount and that he mentors Thomas through his first year as a starter. Beyond 2014 though, chances are that Polamalu is done, and when looking at the roster, there are simply no potential starters and there is no quality depth. Like they did last season, the Steelers must have the foresight to build the defense for future years, and they must make this happen at the safety position. Could be a third or fourth round selection of the Steelers this year.
4. Outside Linebacker – There is disagreement amongst the Pittsburgh media as far as what the outcome of the Jason Worilds situation will be. Some believe that he will be re-signed, while some believe that the Steelers will not be able to afford his monetary expectations. Regardless of who returns, the Steelers do not have quality depth at the outside linebacker position and must address it through the draft, with possibly two picks, not just one. If Worilds and Jarvis Jones are the starters next season, who will step in should there be an injury? With Chris Carter unable to show promise, the Steelers have zero depth at the position, and that could prove costly should there be an injury to their top two guys. This could precipitate the Steelers bringing in a serviceable free agent as well, but it’s almost a guarantee that they target the outside linebacker position.
5. Running Back – The Steelers are set for several years with Bell as the feature back; however, there is no back to compliment his powerful style with the threat of the homerun. Jonathan Dwyer should be resigned as the short yardage back and a serviceable fill-in should Bell get hurt, but the Steelers need a change of pace runner to add another layer of complexity to the offense. The Steelers won’t address this position early, but they could make this happen as soon as the fourth round.
6. Tight End - Heath Miller can’t play forever, but he still has a few years left to contribute to the Steelers. He was slowed at the beginning of this season because of the knee injury he suffered in 2012. However, as the season progressed, he appeared to be more comfortable, and it was evidenced in his play on the field. While there is scuttlebutt that the Steelers may go tight end in the first round by selecting Eric Ebron from North Carolina State and address both the need for a big bodied receiver and a future starter tight end, Ebron more than likely will not be on the board when the Steelers select at 15, and the team may not have enough belief in Ebron’s blocking abilities. While a tight end in the first round may be a stretch, the Steelers will select one at some point in this year’s draft.
7. Defensive End - It’s uncertain whether or not Ziggy Hood will be resigned for next season, but the Steelers may be wise to do so, as he has proven to be durable and serviceable, though not a game-changer. It is unlikely that the team will go after a defensive end in the early rounds, but they could address the positional depth late.
8. Inside Linebacker – The Steelers are set with Lawrence Timmons, but there are still question marks at the other inside spot. Can Vince Williams develop into an every down inside backer? Will Sean Spence overcome his injury and assume the starting role he was drafted for? Or will Larry Foote be allowed to stay and be inserted back in the starting lineup? While there is a lot of uncertainty at the position, the Steelers are not likely to draft an inside linebacker early. Again, this is a position with not much depth, and so addressing it in the later rounds as they did last year seems the most likely approach.